Background Briefing

IV. The Political Parties Law in Practice

The PPC’s partisan composition, its sweeping powers, and the subjective criteria upon which it makes decisions have been a recipe for abuse of power and the exclusion of legitimate political parties. Not surprisingly, between 1977 and the end of 2004, the PPC rejected 63 parties’ applications and approved only two, those of the Wifaq al-Watani (National Accord) Party and the Gil al-Dimoqrati (Democratic Generation) Party.36 It subsequently suspended the Wifaq al-Watani Party’s activities in August 2001, however, citing a leadership dispute within the party. It was the sixth party the committee had suspended.37

Reflecting on this record in an interview with Human Rights Watch, Hamdin Sabbahi, the leader of the unrecognized al-Karama (Dignity) Party, concluded, “Under the terms of the political parties law, the ruling party has the right to select its opposition, on its own terms.”38 His colleague Amin Iskandr was more blunt: “The Political Parties Committee is the NDP,” he said. “The political parties law is a law to ban political parties.”39

Sabbahi and Iskandr have seen first-hand how the parties law works. Since they split from the Nasserist Party in March 1996,40 Sabbahi and Iskandr have twice applied to register the Karama Party and have twice been rejected. After the PPC rejected their initial application on the grounds that their platform “was not sufficiently distinct from those of existing parties,” Sabbahi and Iskandr appealed to the State Council, which in theory has the power to overrule the PPC. In March 2002 the State Council upheld the PPC’s decision. On September 25, 2004, the Karama Party—which, Iskandr says, “seeks to modernize [former Egyptian president] Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab program with an increased emphasis on democracy and pluralism”—again applied to the PPC for permission to operate.41 On October 2 the PPC promptly rejected the application on the grounds that the party “espoused a radical ideology.”42

Al-Karama’s founders appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court, challenging the allegation that theirs was a radical ideology. Before delivering verdicts, Egypt’s administrative courts first refer cases to a panel of experts (hayat al-mufawaddin),43 which prepares a report containing non-binding recommendations. In a report dated October 2006, the Supreme Administrative Court’s panel of experts recommended that the court reject the application, again on the grounds that the Karama Party’s platform was not sufficiently different from existing parties.

Sabbahi, who holds a seat in Parliament as an independent and who has published the weekly opposition al-Karama newspaper since September 2005, told Human Rights Watch that the Karama Party is now in talks with other unlicensed parties to decide whether they should announce that they will stop seeking the PPC’s permission to operate. If the unlicensed parties agree on this course of action, Sabbahi said, their argument will be that they have legitimacy to operate derived from guarantees in the constitution of the right to form parties.44

Whereas the Karama Party’s Iskandr describes the political parties law as “a law to ban parties,” Abu al-`Ila Madi, the founder of the unlicensed Wasat Party, describes it as “a law to torture parties.”45 Indeed, Madi’s experience trying to register the Wasat Party is a case study of how the government uses the political parties law to prevent the emergence of political parties. On three separate occasions since its first application in January 1996, the PPC has denied the Wasat Party permission to operate. Madi initially started the Wasat Party with a group of former members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had left that banned organization because, in his words, they “wanted to see the Brotherhood choose between being a da`wa [proselytizing] organization and a political party.”46 He describes the Wasat Party as “a civil party informed by the ideals of Islam,” and repeatedly has likened its philosophy to that of Germany’s Christian Democratic Party. 47 The party emphasizes ideals of citizenship and has made efforts to emphasize and demonstrate that it represents Egyptians of all faiths.

Despite Madi’s efforts, the PPC has denied the party legal recognition three times over the course of the past 10 years. In the first instance, Madi told Human Rights Watch, members of the Muslim Brotherhood successfully pressured some of the signatories to the Wasat Party’s 1996 application for registration to withdraw their signatures.48 As a result, the party’s application no longer contained the requisite number of signatures, and the government rejected it on those grounds.

While the government does not appear to have abused its discretion in rejecting the Wasat Party’s first application, it did take immediate steps following the rejection to arrest and detain the party’s founders, with State Security officers arresting Madi, `Issam Hashish, and Magdi Faruq two days after the PPC decision. President Mubarak ordered their case transferred to the High Military Court, where they faced charges of “running, in violation of the law, an organization called the Muslim Brotherhood, the aim of which is to advocate undermining the constitution and the laws,” and “recruiting new elements with the aim of inciting the masses against the present government.” On August 15, 1996, the court acquitted Madi, Hashish, and Faruq and ordered them released.

Once freed, Madi and his associates continued to campaign to register their party. Finally, on May 9, 1998, after a long series of appeals, the State Council ruled that the Wasat Party was not sufficiently different from existing parties to warrant a license. Two days later, the party presented a new application with new founders, new supporting signatures, a slightly different platform, and a new name — Hizb al-Wasat al-Misri (The Egyptian Centrist Party) — to the PPC, which again promptly rejected the application on the grounds that the party was not sufficiently different from existing parties. This time, the head of the State Council refused to hear the Wasat Party’s appeal.

Five years later, in October 2004, Madi and the other founders of the Wasat Party “sensed an opportunity in the government’s promises of political reform” and petitioned a third time for permission to register the party, this time under the name Hizb al-Wasat al-Gadid (The New Centrist Party). Again they submitted an application with a slightly different platform and a new list of founders. A leadership shuffle within the NDP and rumors that senior NDP members had begun to look more favorably on the Wasat Party buoyed their hopes.49

Other parties also perceived an opportunity in the fall of 2004. The Karama (Dignity) Party and Ayman `Abd al-`Aziz Nur’s Hizb al-Ghad (Party of Tomorrow) also sought the PPC’s approval.

Despite the government’s rhetoric of reform, though, the PPC denied two of the three applications, licensing only the Ghad Party. 50 The PPC rejected al-Wasat’s application on the grounds that its platform was “not sufficiently distinct from existing political parties,” and al-Karama’s application on the grounds that it advocated “a radical ideology.” Madi was disappointed: “It was hard to reconcile the government’s rhetoric on reform before the elections with their decision to reject our request,” he told Human Rights Watch.51

In November 2004, the Wasat Party yet again appealed the PPC’s rejection to the State Council at the Supreme Administrative Court. In June 2005 the panel of experts returned its report on the merits of the Wasat Party’s application, finding that the Wasat Party’s program was sufficiently distinct and met all the criteria outlined in the political parties law. It therefore recommended that the court grant the Wasat Party a license. “That report was a surprise,” Madi told a reporter from the opposition newspaper al-Ahali in July 2006. “Their decision was a product of the political climate at the time [June 2005]. The court is quite closely connected to the political and public atmosphere. We presented our case and asked for a court date, which was set for February 4, 2006.”52

While not bound by the panels’ recommendations, the administrative courts in such cases usually abide by their recommendations. It seemed to Madi that the Wasat Party was destined for approval.

By February 2006, however, the political climate had changed again. Whereas in June 2005 leading members of the NDP and the president himself were talking about democratic reforms and revitalizing Egypt’s political parties, by the winter of 2005-2006, the government had put the brakes on such reforms. The Ghad Party’s Ayman `Abd al-`Aziz Nur, who had been released from jail following U.S. pressure just in time to run against Mubarak in the September 2005 presidential election, was back in prison on politically motivated charges.53 After the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong showing in the first round of voting in the November-December 2005 parliamentary elections, judicial and independent monitors reported outbreaks of state-sponsored violence and irregularities on a massive scale across the country in subsequent rounds of voting.54

On February 4, 2006, the court said it needed more time to deliberate, and set itself an April 1 deadline. On April 1 the court decided to delay its decision until June 3, “based on a request from the government and some of the [party’s] founders.”55 Madi told al-Ahali’s reporter that he was “shocked” by news that seven of the signatories to the Wasat Party’s application had withdrawn their signatures. He told Human Rights Watch that he and other party leaders learned that the government had pressured seven of the signatories—all Coptic Christians—to retract their support.56 He stated that the founders in question

had been exposed to severe political pressure, part of which had involved officers from a security institution. This pressure had been applied to the founders in secret, and forced them to retract their support for the party and to present these retractions to the Shura Council.57

Madi said that the retractions had been presented on January 5, 2006, a month before the Wasat Party’s court date, without his knowledge. The court, citing a breach of procedure, initially did not respond to the late withdrawal of the signatures, and so on March 8 the government requested that the names be removed from the party’s list of signatories. On April 1, the Wasat Party again pled its case, submitting the names of four new prominent citizens as founders, and produced three prominent secular political activists from the Coptic community—George Ishaq, Amin Iskandr, and Dr. Hana Girgis—to appear in court to support the party’s contention that it was not sectarian. The court again delayed its decision until September 16, then again until November 4, and most recently until January 6, 2007. Ten years after the Wasat Party first applied for permission to register as a political party, and after a positive recommendation from a panel of legal experts led by the chair of the State Council, the government has yet to license the party.

36 Mona el-Nahhas, “Changing Tactics,” Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), December 2-8, 2004. The PPC has licensed few political parties. The PPC approved the Labor Party in 1977 but subsequently suspended its activities. The Young Egypt Party and the Social Justice Party were created by an order of the Supreme Administrative Court’s State Council. The PPC has since suspended the Young Egypt Party, the Social Justice Party, the Populist Democratic Party, and the Liberal Party (one of the three established by President Sadat, see above). See Tamir Moustafa, “The Law Versus State: The Judicialization of Politics in Egypt,” Law and Social Inquiry (Washington DC: American Bar Association, 2003), p. 14.

37 “The Future of Political Parties in Danger,” Egyptian Organization for Human Rights press release, August 22, 2001.

38 Human Rights Watch interview with Hamdin Sabbahi, Cairo, November 24, 2006.

39 Human Rights Watch interview with Amin Iskandr, Cairo, November 24, 2006.

40 Sabbahi and Iskandr split from the Nasserist Party after a long association stretching back to their involvement in Cairo University’s Club for Nasserist Thought in the 1970s.

41 Human Rights Watch interview with Amin Iskandr, Cairo, November 24, 2006.

42 Mona al-Nahhas, “Tomorrow’s Party Today,” Al-Ahram Weekly, Cairo, November 4-10, 2004. (accessed December 22, 2006).

43 Article 6 of Law No. 47/1972 (“The State Council Law”) stipulates that the panel of experts “Shall be chaired by one of the vice-presidents of the State Council, and shall include a sufficient number of senior judges (mustasharin) and deputy senior judges (mustasharin musa`idin).” As noted in footnote 17, above, these judges owe their seats to the Supreme Judicial Council, a body whose membership is determined by the Ministry of Justice.

44 Human Rights Watch interview with Hamdin Sabbahi, Cairo, November 24, 2006. Article 5 of the Egyptian constitution reads: “The political regime of the Arab Republic of Egypt is based upon the multiparty system within the framework of the basic principles and components of the Egyptian society stipulated by the Constitution. Political parties shall be organized by law.”

45 Human Rights Watch interview with Abu al-`Ila Madi, Cairo, July 19, 2006.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid. See also Omar Ahmed Omar, “‘Government Officials Are Playing the Sectarian Card at the Expense of the National Interest’: An Interview with Abu al-`Ila Madi,” Al-Ahali (Cairo), July 19, 2006 [Arabic]:

Do the Christian Democrats in Germany use religion to differentiate between German citizens? Of course not. So why do we accept a Western experiment in which a party’s values are based on Christianity, but are at the same time democratic and founded on the idea of citizenship but not accept that same experiment for ourselves?… What’s the harm in taking a cultural authority that has served this region for more than 14 centuries and translating it into a civil program, one that still respects the rules of the political game, the foundation of which is the concept of citizenship on the national and party level and equality between all people, without practicing any kind of injustice or oppression of personal and religious freedoms?

48 Human Rights Watch interview with Abu al-`Ila Madi, Cairo, July 19, 2006.

49 Human Rights Watch interview with Abu al-`Ila Madi, Cairo, July 19, 2006.

50 The question of why the government approved al-Ghad’s application but rejected those of al-Karama and al-Wasat remains the subject of speculation. Some local and international observers have theorized that the government approved al-Ghad’s application in an attempt to weaken the Wafd Party by splitting away a faction of its supporters. Others have speculated that the government was trying to curry favor with the United States, which had been pressuring the ruling party to tolerate more opposition and was likely to approve of al-Ghad’s liberal-democratic and neo-liberal platform. By contrast, approving either al-Karama, with its Arab nationalist, Nasserist platform, or al-Wasat, with its complicated relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood, were seen as unlikely to be popular with the United States.

51 Human Rights Watch interview with Abu al-`Ila Madi, Cairo, July 19, 2006.

52 Omar, “An Interview with Abu al-`Ila Madi,” Al-Ahali.

53 See “Egypt: Ayman Nur Trial Badly Flawed,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 7, 2005,

54 See Human Rights Watch letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about Department of State Comments on Egyptian Elections, December 2, 2005,

55 Omar, “An Interview with Abu al-`Ila Mad,” Al-Ahali.

56 Human Rights Watch interview with Abu al-`Ila Madi, Cairo, July 19, 2005.

57 Omar, “An Interview with Abu al-`Ila Madi,” Al-Ahali.